“A Mind Can Be a Haunted House”: Carmen Maria Machado Visits the University of Utah
by Audrey Bauman
The first story I ever read by Carmen Maria Machado was not "The Husband Stitch" or "Especially Heinous." It was not her excellent and essential memoir “In the Dream House,” a book I’ve read and re-read and been in love with and also a little bit angry at for how good it is. It was not even the one-sentence story I regularly teach my students, “Mary When You Follow Her.” The first story I ever read by Carmen Maria Machado was initially published in Lightspeed Magazinein 2014. It’s a story formatted and organized as a Kickstarter, one that works with a premise both darkly funny and sad. The title is “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead.”
In many ways, it exemplifies Machado’s style – here, we’ve got an unconventional form, a surreal premise, and a devastating emotional problem at the story’s center. The story includes the Kickstarter’s description (“When I tell you that my sister has absconded to the land of the dead, do not mistake me”), the awards backers at various tiers might receive (“salt from my personal tears”), and a timeline of updates as the narrator embarks on this journey. I must have been eighteen or nineteen when I read it. I was a young writer, still inexperienced and not very fluent in how to read a text. I found the story, loved it, and mostly forgot about it until years later when I read “Her Body and Other Parties” and realized the author of those glittering, innovative stories and the author of one of the first stories I ever read purely for me were one and the same.
I say all of this to say that Machado’s stories have influenced my writing and reading in subtle and unsubtle ways for many years – that, for me, her work is a big deal. But Machado, an author of multiple inventive and critically acclaimed books, is a big deal in the world of contemporary letters, period. And, at risk of understatement, it was a really big deal that the Tanner Humanities Center brought her in for a packed reading and conversation on October 5th, in conjunction with the start of fall, with Banned Books Week, and to kick off an impressive line-up of guest writers, artists, and thinkers.
Machado began her talk by reading three sections of “In the Dream House,”a memoir investigating intimate partner violence in queer relationships, specifically lesbian relationships. The memoir is characterized in part by its fragmented form, each short section spanning somewhere between one sentence, one paragraph, and several pages. Each section is also titled “Dream House as _____,” putting the concept of the dream house, and through it Machado's story, into conversation with various generic, narrative, or folkloric conventions. During her Tanner Talk, Machado read "Dream House as Bluebeard," "Dream House as Mystical Pregnancy," and "Dream House as Natural Disaster." We in the audience laughed and were mesmerized as she read the entirety of a footnote citing instances of mystical pregnancy in a folklore index. We laughed again as she read "Dream House as Natural Disaster." "I got bad heartburn," she began, and then added, "Actually, not anymore!" Raucous applause. This set the tone for the conversation to follow, which ranged from discussions of the Gothic in Machado’s work to queerness in the 2009 film “Jennifer’s Body.”
Throughout the conversation, Machado repeatedly returned to haunting and the self. "A mind can be a haunted house," she noted during the talk, paraphrasing Emily Dickinson. She spoke of the past self, such as the “you” of “In the Dream House,” as something that never truly leaves, that haunts the present. She spoke, too, of the present self as something that is never fully knowable. She spoke of the importance of recognizing yourself in art and feeling your sense of what's possible expand. She mentioned how she didn't have the language for an adolescent gay crush because she'd never read that story. When the conversation turned to book banning, Machado pointed out the horrifying argument accompanying an absent or suppressed archive: "You have never existed before." The self is mysterious and always more than language can describe; the opportunity to seek language for it anyway, through reading and writing and the humanities writ large, is essential. Doing so can bring greater self-knowledge and access to a wider community. Queer youth need and deserve this opportunity, Machado argued, and being denied it rises to a form of violence.
In her Q&A the following morning at the Jewel Box in the Carolyn Tanner Irish Humanities Building, Machado continued to address haunting, the self, archival absences, writing, and her writing process. I took pages of notes. It was beautiful to hear a writer so vital to me speak candidly about how challenging and fun writing is and to find what beloved writers we share (shoutout to Sofia Samatar!). It was wonderful, too, to see the room so full. I saw classmates, professors, and one of my students. I saw many people I didn't know who were also eager to be there and ask questions. Someone asked Machado about the relationship between writing genre-inflected fiction and joy. Someone else asked, “How do you know when a story is done?” Things I wrote down: How do you become the person you are? Ending a story requires an understanding of yourself and your practice. The barrier to following what fascinates you is shame. “I write to go into myself.”
Above all, in the Q&A, Machado addressed the value of whimsy and play. This ties in with the earlier, more serious conversation around missing stories and the unknowability of the self. It also seemed to tie in with a footnote listing so many mystical pregnancies, a story written as a crowdfunding page, and the freedom of "Dream House as ____." If the theme of Machado's visit was in part about how to be an unruly human, it seems like what unruliness and playfulness have in common is a healthy disregard for, well, rules. What should a self look like? What should a story look like? Can you do that (write surreal Lynchian “Law and Order: SVU” fanfiction)? What about this – who cares? What interests you? What feels good? While not discounting the difficulties of holding onto whimsy and of deeply investigating the self, Machado described through her words, her stories, and her very presence the value of doing so. It’s fun to go into yourself and find what comes out. It’s also hard, painful, and often rewarding.
If I opened up this piece a bit autobiographically, it's because I, too, have a "you" from the past living inside me. She loved narrative whimsy, like a story as a Kickstarter, and fiction that dealt in the uncanny and writing alone in her college dorm room. She was nervous and quiet and trusted herself very little. She read all the time to find a self that looked like her, and there were many things about that self she hadn’t explored or didn’t yet know about that she wouldn’t learn until long after she’d read deeper into Machado’s oeuvre. She wanted to write a book. She wanted to fall in love. She wanted to be invisible. She wanted to be seen. She would have loved to be a student in the Utah Museum of Fine Arts auditorium on October 5th, listening to Machado speak. She would have loved to learn about the “I” in the future who got the opportunity to do so.
A few days after her visit, Machado posted a video of her signing line winding through the museum café and lobby on her Instagram page. "Salt Lake City, you could not have been any more gay and charming," she wrote. In the video, people chatter excitedly, clutch books to their chests, fill the frame and take up space. The line billows and twists and explodes with readers. It’s a vibrant, exuberant bunch. The whole affair is joyfully unruly.
Published October 24, 2023